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Thumbing her nose at a legal community taboo, a part-time Contra Costa County court commissioner will run against a sitting judge in the March 2 election. Denise Schmidt — a Walnut Creek resident who has flirted with running for judicial office twice before — will go up against Judge John Sugiyama, appointed to the bench by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2002. Running against incumbent judges usually is viewed as the kiss of death for an attorney’s legal career. But Schmidt, a commissioner for six years, said she isn’t worried. “I see it as one bench officer running against another.” Though Sugiyama lives in Moraga and has lived in Contra Costa County since 1976, Schmidt claims that his work in San Francisco as an AG and in Sacramento for the Department of Corrections makes him an outsider. She notes he wasn’t a member of the Contra Costa County Bar Association before he was appointed. County residents deserve to have someone with “deep roots” in the community on the bench, she said. “He’s from an agency in Sacramento.” Sugiyama says Schmidt is questioning his local ties because “she has no [election] issue.” He noted that many Contra Costa County judges gained legal fame outside the county before they came to the bench. Several are former Alameda County deputy district attorneys, federal prosecutors or civil practitioners with statewide or national practices. The judge says that Schmidt’s calling herself a “bench officer” is misleading. All of the county’s judges vote when a full-time court commissioner is appointed, he said. Schmidt, who hasn’t renewed her State Bar card since 1998, is a part-time county employee who fills in on an “as-needed” basis, he said. “My legal experience and judicial experience far surpasses hers,” Sugiyama said. As far as endorsements go, the legal establishment has circled its wagons in support of Sugiyama. Most of the county’s judges and court commissioners have endorsed him, as well as the county’s Deputy Sheriffs Association, retired District Attorney Gary Yancey, Sheriff Warren Rupf and a laundry list of Contra Costa politicos. But Schmidt has picked up key endorsements from police unions in Concord, Antioch, Pleasant Hill and Brentwood. Although her police supporters have pledged manpower and financial support, Schmidt says that she does not plan to take any donations. This is Schmidt’s third brush with election politics. She paid candidate filing fees when judicial seats opened up in 1999 and 2001 but dropped out early in both races. Schmidt, 49, has filled in for court commissioners at the Pittsburg and Concord branch courts when the bench was shorthanded. Before that she had a civil law practice for 12 years, arguing appellate cases in San Francisco, Fresno and Sacramento. Before he took the bench, Sugiyama, 54, worked for the attorney general’s office in San Francisco for 25 years. As a senior assistant attorney general, he handled civil and criminal cases. Two years before he joined the bench Sugiyama was deputy director and chief counsel for the corrections department. The judge has raised $37,500 for his campaign so far. Most of that �� $30,000 �� was donated or loaned to him by his father, Shigeki Sugiyama.

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